Belarus - Annual report 2007

Area: 207,600

Population: 9,755,000.

Languages: Belarusian, Russian.

Head of state: Alexander Lukashenko.

President Alexander Lukashenko's reelection with more than 80% of the vote in very tense conditions on 19 March 2006 showed his firm intent to resist the wind of change in neighbouring Ukraine. The deplorable press freedom situation in Belarus did not improve and Lukashenko has managed in his three terms of office to silence nearly all opposition and independent media.

Many foreign journalists were deported or refused entry visas in spring 2006, including Laure Mandeville, of the French daily Le Figaro, who was officially told she had written "lies" about the situation in Belarus.

Repression focused on media outlets giving a voice to the opposition or simply mentioning its existence. At least nine journalists were arrested and beaten on 2 March by plainclothes police while reporting on the arrest of opposition presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin. A week later, all 250,000 copies of a special edition of the independent paper Narodnaya Volia about Kazulin were seized. Distribution of three independent papers containing manifestos of opposition candidates was prevented by their Russian printing firm which broke off its contracts with them. Police on 17 March seized 200,000 copies of the opposition paper Tovarishch (which had been closed for several months) because they contained the manifesto of presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) said the state-run TV station ONT gave 89% of its airtime to election candidates between 21 February and 4 March. Two opposition candidates - Milinkevich and Sergei Gaidukevich - were not mentioned at all, while a third, Kazulin, got just 0.4% of the airtime.

The free media has almost disappeared or been forced underground as in Soviet times. Printing and distribution of newspapers is done by monopoly state firms and the state post office Belpochta, which has a monopoly on handling subscription copies, said it would stop distributing in 2007 four national papers (Narodnaya Volia, Nasha Niva, Tovarishch, Svobodnie Novosti Plus) and more than a dozen regional ones.

Systematic legal hounding by the authorities of media outlets that stray from the official line enables them to be silenced through bankrupting them. Suspension of the cultural magazine Arche was confirmed on 8 November on grounds that its September issue had contravened the magazine's licence terms banning it from mentioning politics. The cover photo showed police breaking up an opposition protest in March and an article detailed a 1995 crackdown on opposition MPs who were protesting a referendum imposed by Lukashenko to make Russian one of the country's official languages.

The suspension threatened the magazine's existence. The post office told Arche that if its next issue did not appear before 18 December, it would stop distributing the magazine. Journalist Valentin Akudovich said the magazine "would never recover - the regime has banned it from newsstands, then from bookshops and now from simply appearing."

Administrative reasons were used as a threat to suspend the country's oldest independent weekly, Nasha Niva, on the eve of its centenary. The information ministry said the November issue failed to mention its editorial address, thus violating article 26 of the press law. The weekly's application for a licence to send out subscription copies was refused in April. It had not been distributed by the post office since January and had managed to publish thanks to private donations and to printing fewer copies (only 2,500).

The investigation of the July 2000 disappearance of cameraman Dmitri Zavadski was closed again on 31 March 2006, after being reopened in April 2005. The prosecutor-general's office cited an article of the criminal code allowing closure in case of "failure in a search for a disappeared person." Zavadski's body has not been found since he vanshed at Minsk airport.

The government has a monopoly of telecommunications and does not hesitate to block access to opposition websites if it feels the need, especially at election time. Independent online publications are also often hacked. In March 2006, for example, several websites critical of President Alexandre Lukashenko mysteriously disappeared from the Internet for several days.